La Garrotxa

Not so many years ago when I was a boy growing up in Scotland I remember you could distinguish the passing of the seasons by the nuances as they were dictated by Mother Nature.  My memory tells me we had more snow then and perhaps colder winters.  ‘Jack frost’ used to etch pictures on our livingroom window, which were punctuated first thing in the morning by a child’s fascinated touch.  Although still winter, snowdrops erupted through the soil as a harbinger of spring some months hence.   A box of tangerines delivered by my Grandfather told me you were in the depths of a Scottish winter and a boiled and mashed turnip provided a sweet counterpoint to haggis or roast beef. The defining announcement of spring was the vast carpet of daffodils that blankets much of the Banks of the Dee from the Bridge of Dee to Torry in Aberdeen.

Summer for me was visits to the farm of my Mother’s family and bowls of voluptuous, fragrant and soft strawberries which in good years ripened by the sun needed little sugar but mashed with a fork and accompanied by ‘real’ double cream were a gift of summer.  The raspberries and gooseberries of the season, the former served fresh the latter as a ‘fool’ were the equal of the strawberry.  And so to autumn, the first frosts of which could be felt early in September.  The fruit here was the bramble, for pies or crumbles along with the bramley apple.  Autumn for a young boy was the crisp rustle of golden leaves strewn on the pavements and paths and blown into banks and drifts to be kicked and scrambled through.  Seasons were dictated by Nature.  They provided the timeframe for much of our traditions.  They dictated the time of harvest and planting, the run of fish to our rivers and the birth of new life be it a lamb or a shoot of barley.

So why this burst of nostalgia? And what of it for La Rectoria?    I turned my hand to cooking and became a chef thirteen years ago.  I knew what a relatively small place Earth was before I picked up a knife and the daily deliveries to the kitchen door only reinforced that.  French beans, sugar snap peas and mange tout from Kenya and Tanzania, pepper, courgette and aubergine from Murcia Spain, immaculately graded new potatoes from France along with salad leaves.   So what?  But grapes from India, year round strawberries from wherever, tomatoes of dubious quality from The Netherlands, flabby farmed salmon and even Peruvian asparagus.   Our ability to obtain vegetables and fruit and other foods of almost any type whenever we demand it has both an environmental cost and is detrimental to their quality, as much of the produce is picked or harvested early so as to maximize it’s ‘shelf life’.

As a consequence of this and numerous other factors food is beginning to lose its meaning to many in the western tradition.  In the increasingly frenetic lives we follow food preparation and its consumption for the family unit is becoming as dislocated as many families themselves.  Personally we do the majority of our fruit and vegetable shopping in the Catalan markets.  The majority of the produce is indigenous and some markets stock produce sold by local farmers, Vic in particular has offered some lovely surprises.  However, much of the produce would appear to come from the agro-machine of Spain, its production often forced and therefore ill served.  The strawberries look great but to mix metaphors are ‘mutton dressed as lamb’, appearing in markets from early February.  The cherries are generally fantastic and we have macerated about 3 kgs in a spiced vodka syrup for use in puddings of various forms and fresh our son gobbles them up with great relish.  I do have trouble with the peaches and apricots in particular.  Apricots are fruit of the gods, golden and velveteen, succulent and soft, I have always dreamt of them as a fruit that provides a marker to what is good about a Mediterranean summer.  The reality is somewhat different when faced with reddish, milky yellow hard fruit which I can only guess has been picked way too early.  Not all is lost.  We have found ‘albercocs de pages’, grown locally and sold looking like an apricot.  Last night served up as ‘Apricot Dartois’ – blanched apricots placed on a bed of frangipan and puff pastry, topped with puff pastry and baked for half an hour.  Tonight with some left over frangipan I have made a version of ‘Pear Bourdaloue’, substituting the pears with apricots .

So where is all this going and what of La Rectoria?  I cook because I enjoy it.  Cooking can be therapeutic connecting  you in so many ways culturally and with agriculture and nature.  It is one of the major elements of the glue that keeps families together.  It can be a tool for social well being connecting families and communities.

We have not designed a menu for La Rectoria.  In all honesty it will be a mix of us the proprietors, Scottish and Catalan.  It will be British and Mediterranean – Spanish, French, Italian and North African.  I think we will attempt to keep the ingredients as local as is possible and seasonal.  We will not be happy just to feed you, but we want to provide you with fare that connects you with where you are.  Your meals will be served at one table, thus if you are a party of two or there are16 people in the house you will be sat with other guests, so that over simple food you can share experiences, parlar and come away contented.   Food and who we are  and how it defines us is a topic I wish to develop and will return to in future.

Before this week’s blurb, two brief apologises.  First, for not posting a blog last weekend; over hectic schedule with the family which was great.  Second, keep the blog focused.  Well, the occasional emotionally skewed rant a la football etc. should be excused.

Summer is here and it’s official.  In Catalunya it is trumpeted in by La Revetlla and Sant Joan on the 24 June.   La Revetlla takes place on the night of the 23rd.  Coca de Llardons is eaten, a flat catalan bread topped with lardons and pinenuts accompanied by a glass of cava.  Fireworks and bangers are set off and the evening has a real party atmosphere, more akin to New Year’s Eve.   All this used to be accompanied by bonfire – bonfires made of old furniture.  Sant Joan was what we British euphemistically call a spring clean.  A thorough top to bottom cleaning and clear out of the home.  It was time for renewal.  Old chairs, tables were tossed on the fire to be replaced by the new.   Now this symbolism has been lost, largely due to the wider risk of forest fires and the alternative provisions made for the disposal of household items.  Never mind, the sentiment is still there.

Sant Joan and the Catalan public holiday was on Thursday; the Spanish don’t move their public holidays to the nearest weekend, as a consequence people often take the Friday off work as well, which makes for a long weekend.  Me, I had no choice, no classes on the Friday.

So with car packed we left Cardedeu on Thursday afternoon and pitched our tent next to La Rectoria.  A makeshift kitchen was put together under the arches of the house and with a near to full moon that bathed the Vall d’Hostels in a silvery light we settled down for the night.  I was first awoken by the dawn chorus, a cacophony of bird song.  Then it was a couple of early bird ladies out for a morning walk.   And it was only just after 07.00 when I got up.  Cup of Earl Grey and armed with strimmer I set to work on the ‘feixa’, the raised ground to the west of the house.   My senses quickly focused on the smell rising from the carpet of cut vegetation, chamomile.  It was a lovely awakening to a beautifully sun soaked morning. 

The carril bici was soon conveying a steady stream of cyclists and walkers passed La Rectoria and if I had a euro for every one that passed during the day I guess I would have earned 100.  And so the feixa has been cleared of chamomile and more noxious weeds.    We will have to gen up on our botany.  The small patio adjacent to the church is sporting a colourful array of plants and flowering shrubs and trees and the family returned with wild flowers and grasses gathered on a summer walk to the Ermita de Santa Cecilia.  The start of another colourful season in La Garrotxa.

Is writing a blog good for your health?   A demonstration that most of us do not know how to, or should not be allowed to write for public consumption?  Some collective therapeutic self cleansing exercise? Or, simply a desire to be heard?

As we the 7,000,000,001 members of humanity currently bumble about our daily tasks I do firmly believe that the best is behind us as a race.   And if someone/thing does come to mother earth, blogs might cast some light on the plight of us mere mortals who otherwise would be forgotten below the hubristic cacophony of our ineffectual leaders.

As I was saying!  It has been very busy week at the rectory.   Professional kitchen suppliers have come and gone to discuss the in and outs, whys and wherefores of extraction systems, salamanders, fridges and freezers, hand washing, food washing and dish washing sinks and more.  The carpenter to discuss windows and doors, dining table.  A ‘team’ have been on site sandblasting wooden beams with a silicon based powder and gear last seen on the set of ‘Ghost busters’….bulging steel bottles and lengths of rubber tubing, masks and visors.

And whilst all of this was going on a handsome, plump toad was found quite literally holed up in a corner of Silvestre’s bedroom.  Sadly, I did not witness this dear creature’s presence and all I know is that he was released unharmed.   More beautiful than any Gucci bag and certainly with greater poise than the weekly exhibitionists featured in ‘Hello’, this guy at least has style and purpose.

So what?  I hear you say.  Well, ask that question of the Madagascan Alaotra Grebe confirmed extinct this week and news that Polar Bears are nearing a ‘tipping point’ – meaning that their fragile survival is rapidly reaching a point of decline that is irreversible.   So our grandchildren will grow up with one less species of bird and probably Polar Bears confined to zoos at best.

And from one hopper to another…..I guess they broke the mould when Dennis Hopper came around.  ‘My, my, hey, hey…’s better to burn out than it is to fade away’ Amen.

School day memories have come back over the last few days.  Tucked away in the corner of what is our store room in Cardedeu is an old wooden desk of the type we had at Lathallan all of 40 years ago.  At the front is the wooden furrow where pens and pencils rested and sitting in the right hand corner the one inch round hole where the china white ink well once rested.  Set three inches or so from the front are the hinges of the lid, which when lifted from the back of the desk opens to provide ample space for school books, paper etc.  We have now placed this desk in Silvestre’s bedroom, as functional as when it was first made 50 years or more ago.

Lifelong friendships were forged sitting at desks such as this and inspirational men taught us maths, history, science and more.  I can’t and won’t lay any claim to being a model student, but I was fortunate to share with my friends the pearls and inspiration that were presented us by the Headmaster, Mr Burton and his wife, Winnie.

Why this outpouring of nostalgia and what is the connection with La Rectoria?   Pere’s men have this week opened up the five bricked up arches in what will be the dining room for the house.  Since our first visit as prospective buyers three years ago the distribution of the house has all but been self evident.  The ‘basement’ was to be our home.  Many of the existing rooms with minor modifications are to be en-suite bedrooms and the old ‘economic kitchen’ with its open fire, the ‘snug’ whisky totting, post dinner salon.   Of all these rooms however, it has been the ‘dining room’ that has retained the greatest secret.  The five arched windows have been blocked up either with stone or perforated red bricks which allowed light to filter in but made any sense of what was beyond impossible.  This room latterly had been used as a classroom.  Painted a light duck egg blue, walls and slanted wooden beams.  The only suggestion of its final purpose is a blackboard painted on one wall.  Largely broken, but still bearing a few illegible scribbles.  Here a priest would have taught boys and girls from the local parish.  Reading, writing, maths and no doubt the word of God.  All in a little valley largely isolated from Spain, if not the outside world. 

The opening of the arches to the dining room totally transforms the experience on entering the house.  What was warm but dark it now radiant and bright as light now floods in.  I can’t say what the trigger was that brought about this cascade of sentimental memories.  Old wooden desks and ink wells have been a catalyst.  But light, vision and education do go hand in glove.

And what a difference a week makes.  Grey and rain ladden clouds have been replaced by blue skies, hazy horizons and light clouds of cotton wool.  Mud is now baked earth and in the relatively brief time I have lived in Catalunya I doubt I have seen the vegetation so green and lush.  My agricultural eyes pick up erroneous beauty.  Fields of wheat obscured by a blanket of red poppies.  Unproductive but pleasant to the eye.

Today we tested out our latest garden gadget to great effect.  A strimmer, brushcutter (in American parlance) or desbrozador, I am wary of such tools, for the simple reason that they are bloody dangerous.  But needs must, given that the garden is taking on the appearance of an unmanageable jungle.  Petrol mixed, visor fitted and harness attached and two or three hours later much of the ‘lawn’ has been laid flat.  Result!

Moves are now underway re-finalizing quotations for the kitchen – oven, canopy and extraction, dishwasher.  Bon profit!

On Friday I was meant to go into Barcelona first thing to meet up with a colleague, but leadened skies and heavy rain put paid to that.  Goretti had an appointment with a serraller (blacksmith) and  Albert our aparellador (surveyor) at La Rectoria to discuss the ‘finishes’ to the periphery  of the windows, arches and doors. So I took the opportunity of accompanying her.  In our limited experience of working with architects (the extension to our flat in Edinburgh and this somewhat larger project) we have learnt that they can be prone to flights of fancy which can then be converted into items of not inconsiderable cost.  This is not to diminish their art and creative bent and both Goretti and I have thought on occasions that given a bottomless pit of money, the opportunities open to us re-the design of La Rectoria would be mind boggling.  Therefore I guess, there is nothing quite like a budget to keep you focused.

Thus it has been with the metal finishes of the house.  The initial idea was to ‘mark’ (frame the profile) the outline of the windows, arches and doors with bands  of steel 10 to 20cm wide and 6mm thick.  In time these oxidise to russets and browns.  Kind of nice.  The shear cost of 6mm steel has put the kybosh on using it on the facade of the arches but we are intending to use it as intended elsewhere.  So the serraller produced his weighty sample of steel, the colour of Heinz Tomato soup.  When darker it will provide a good counterpoint to the stone of the house.  Prudence has also led us to the decision of plastering as opposed to pointing exposed stone walls on the main floor, as originally intended.  The pointed stone might have  aesthetically been our choice, but at three times the price the decision was something of a no brainer.  So, these are the types of decisions we are having to weigh up on a weekly basis as alternative options are thrown up to us.

As we arrived at La Rectoria under grey skies and low cloud, a large cement mixer was already at work supplying another truck with funnily enough, cement, which was being pumped into the top floor of the house.  Inside, Vicenç and a colleague armed with some kind of electrically operated scraper were smoothing out the liquid mass across the floor.  This operation was to be repeated in the basement as well.  In total some six or seven truck loads of cement.  When finished this should help reinforce the overall structure and provide a layer on to which to put the floor finishes.

Meanwhile outside the garden and carri bici immediately leading to La Rectoria has taken on the appearance of a ploughed park.  That will be rectified in good time.  But in the short term we are going to have to pay some attention to tidying and maintaining the garden in the coming months.  Mechanical means will have to be employed to tackle the majority of the work, but we are considering a biological/organic four legged option.  On frequent visits to Barcelona Zoo with Silvestre we have seen African Pygmy goats frolicking gaily in their pen.  These playful wee beasts could provide us with mobile weed and flower munching garden maintenance machines, reaching the parts lawnmowers cannot reach.  I’m looking forward to erecting the sign- ‘Caution – Exotic Pets’.

Our visit to Sant Miquel this week was by way of a detour to the City of Girona.  A forty five minute drive up the AP7 motorway from Cardedeu to Girona, and then about another forty five minutes cross country to our house via Anglès, Amer and Les Planes d’Hostoles. The Catalans must be beginning to believe that the weather patterns common to Britain – rain, cloud and cool temperatures – are taking up permanent residence here.  The top of Montseny to the north of Cardedeu was carpeted in snow on Tuesday and much of Catalunya has been saturated this week.

So as we drove up the motorway the skies looked pretty ominous.  Low dark clouds hanging over the verdant green of the Pla de L’Estany.  Fields of newly sown corn, orchards of apples and pears and stands of poplar trees surrounding the grand masias all set against the hills and mountains to the west and north and the frontier with France. As we approached Girona the skies cleared and the stone flagged streets glistened with the recently departed rain.

Girona has a gem of a historic centre and one we have to get to know better.  The skyline of the old quarter “El Call” is dominated by the Cathedral from which runs a labyrinth of streets and alley ways down to the El Ter (The river Ter).  This part of the city yesterday played host to the annual ‘Temps de Flors’, flowers as art and artistic installation.  Public and private buildings and spaces are taken over for nine days by explosive floral creations. Patios are opened to sculptures of floral imagination which in turn bring smiles of delight.  Carpets of flowers cascading down the flights of stairs from the churches of Sant Marti and Sant Feliu. One needs no excuse to visit Girona, but ‘Temps de Flors’ would make it that much more memorable.

So we continued to La Rectoria.  The ground next to the house continues to look like a ploughed park, partly covered with earth and rubble.  Suddenly, however, with ample moisture and now with a modest increase in temperature, grasses and wild flowers have leapt upwards and the browns and greys of the surrounding wooded hillsides are now freshly green.

Now we have a damp proof membrane being installed in the basement.  On the uppermost floor preparations are nearly complete for the ‘compression layer` – concrete poured among and over mats of steel to strength the floor and house in general.  Word has it that the roof will be removed in June, to be replaced by something altogether more watertight and robust.

We can at last allow ourselves a small sigh of relief.  The foundations have all but been completed and much of the initial structural work has been completed downstairs.  So it was this week that the focus of attention moved to the upper floor.  Pragmatism and prudence also played their part as the pest control team arrived to fumigate the basement and thus halt any threat of termites.  Well, there is no point in rebuilding the place if it is going to be gnawed, ingested and turned into some kind of ‘Happy Meal’ for insects.  In due course the timbers throughout the house will be treated to rid the house of any incumbent mites.

Until this week two of the south facing rooms on the top floor had had their windows bricked up.  On removing these barriers to light the upper level has been flooded with light.  The sense of space has been magnified.  The whitish grey plaster of the walls is dotted occasionally with wooden pegs from which once hams hung in the cool air.  Straining your neck back and upwards you can see more clearly the symmetry of the wooden beams and purlins that support the terracotta tiles above.  Many of these have been partially painted white leaving the remaining red of the terracotta exposed in diamond form.

It is our intention to retain as much of the original character of this old house, however due to constraints of one kind or another it is not possible to keep everything one would like.  Thus it is in this case that wooden floor of the upper hall will be lost from view.  A ‘compression layer’ of concrete is to be applied throughout the upper level, thereby strengthening it.  The upside is that the ceiling of the hall below will be retained and with it it’s thumping great cross beams.  Finally, re-all things structural, as the arches on the north facing side have been opened and the earth that accumulated against them is removed, that façade of house appears to stand ever taller. 

Goretti and myself first visited La Garrotxa five years ago, when Silvestre was all of four months old and we were on holiday staying with Goretti’s family.  The visit to the area was half business, half pleasure.  Prior to this we had done a little spade work on the internet, trying to identify properties that might fulfill our dream of a ‘Casa Rural’ (guest house).   We drove first to the neighbouring conmarca (county) of Ripolles and then to La Garrotxa.  It was june and swelteringly hot.  About 35°c, no air conditioning in the wee Renault Twingo we had borrowed from Goretti’s Mum.

We were shown around half a dozen properties over three or four days.  A mix of old farmhouses, inelegant newer buildings and those that were little more than edifices of stone and timber delicately holding one and the other up and together.  One I remember fell into the latter category.  Just north of Olot this place had lip smacking views.  The fields around it fell away into the surrounding woodland and the horizon to the north and east was nothing less than the Pyrenees.

It was then we recognized the potential of this area as a destination for those that wanted more than a vacation on the Spanish Costas.  So I guess here we are putting our money literally where our mouths are. 

A while back, one of my Sisters kindly gave us a 1978 edition of Guia Turistica Michelin, España as part of a ‘clear out’.  A cursory flick through the pages and La Garrotxa  gets a few brief mentions.   Banyoles and Olot are about it.  And so your late 1970’s discerning travelling gourmet would I guess have given this corner of ‘España’ a body swerve.

This week same said Sister posted us a newspaper cutting from the ‘Guardian’ Travel section, headed with the punbascious title ‘Destined for crater things’ (27.03.10 for those of you interested in tracking it down).  BINGO, the author of the piece could hardly have painted a better picture of La Garrotxa and the surrounding region.  Thanks Sister and thanks Gruaniad!

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